Government efforts to portray progress in the Iraq War were boosted by USA Today's August 13 front page story, "Major attacks decline in Iraq."
The paper's report relied entirely on current and former military officials, with the key claim being that "large al-Qaeda-style attacks in Iraq have declined nearly 50% since the United States started increasing troop levels in Iraq about six months ago." The paper added that such attacks "have dropped to about 70 in July from a high during the past year of about 130 in March, according to the Multi-National Force-Iraq."
This claim deserved some serious scrutiny, but USA Today unfortunately provided none. There was no explanation as to why this particular time frame (from March to July) was uniquely relevant, and USA Today did not explain what the military even meant by "large Al-Qaeda-style attacks." The Brookings Institution's Iraq Index, which tracks military and political developments in Iraq, provides one count of multiple fatality bombings and casualties from such attacks. By their tally, multiple fatality bombings from March to July showed a slight decline—nothing close to the 50 percent being touted by the U.S. command, and July's total was slightly higher than the previous two months. Bombing using vehicles increased slightly from March to July; meanwhile, civilian deaths in multiple fatality attacks declined only slightly, while deaths of U.S. and Iraqi forces increased. And according to the Iraq Index, multiple fatality bombings targeting civilians were higher in July than the previous two months.
Counts of civilian deaths in Iraq vary: the Associated Press reported (Christian Science Monitor, 8/3/07) at least 2,024 violent deaths in July (an increase of 23 percent from June), while the Iraqi government reported a lower total (1,652) that was nonetheless a significant increase from the previous month (Agence France Presse, 8/1/07)
Given that such data is readily available, USA Today should have—at the very least—acknowledged that the military claims could be questioned. In contrast with USA Today's approach, McClatchy Newspapers (8/15/07) covered similar Pentagon claims regarding violence in Baghdad. But instead of merely repeating the official claims, McClatchy's Leila Fadel raised questions: "U.S. officials say the number of civilian casualties in the Iraqi capital is down 50 percent. But U.S. officials declined to provide specific numbers, and statistics gathered by McClatchy Newspapers don't support the claim."
McClatchy then offered its own analysis of the violence in Baghdad:
No pattern of improvement is discernible for violence during the five months of the surge. In January, the last full month before the surge began, 438 people were killed in the capital in bombings. In February, that number jumped to 520. It declined in March to 323, but jumped again in April, to 414.
It's to be expected that advocates for prolonging the Iraq War will try to argue that the troop "surge" has brought about some progress in the country. It's not too much to ask that mainstream journalists treat such claims skeptically.
ACTION: Contact USA Today and ask them why their August 13 report, "Major attacks decline in Iraq," merely repeated military claims instead of scrutinizing them.
Brent Jones, Reader Editor